Mammoth Mind-Pho-ness: Giving Thanks Away From Amherst

Staff writer Pho Vu ’23 recounts her Thanksgiving trip to St. Paul, Minnesota, and Chicago, a trip that allowed her to learn the joys and challenges of navigating unfamiliar places alone.

Mammoth Mind-Pho-ness:  Giving Thanks Away From Amherst
The Wrigley Building in Chicago, Ilinois. Photo courtesy of Pho Vu ’23.

Thanksgiving is a cheerful holiday that you can spend with family, friends, or — if you’ve been planning well for a long time — both. I need to travel 8,500 miles from Amherst to get to my home in Ho Chi Minh City and 3,000 miles to visit my aunt’s house in Anaheim. Fares are proportional to geographical distance, and we don’t need a calculation to conclude that a two-way ticket to either of those cities would cost an arm and a leg. With this knowledge and less than a month left in the U.S., I made up my mind to spend the one-week break venturing into two of America’s biggest cities: Chicago and Saint Paul.

When I arrived at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, it felt like Christmas had been in the air for eons. Aside from frosty snow and foggy breath, I saw people hugging at the airport as if they hadn’t seen each other in ages in temperatures well-below freezing. That warm impression as a tourist highlighted a fact: I was the only tourist I knew of there. Taking 54 Eastbound to The Saint Paul Hotel, I got off at the station, and my jaw dropped at the absolutely luminous scenery in front of my eyes. From the Landmark Center and Landmark Plaza to Rice Park, everywhere was ornamented with light. If Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe” had been on the radio, I might have been tricked into thinking I was one of the 2011 festive music video extras. As Christmas was approaching, I was ready for this adventure.

If truth be told, no matter how well prepared you are, you will never be able to comprehend the strange rhythm of life’s troubles. They are as unwavering as Covid, and even if you get the recommended shots and boosters, you can still go down with them. Trying to find accommodations in both cities, I experienced a few of these troubles. In St. Paul, the hotel agent told me that if I didn’t have a debit or credit card, I wouldn’t be able to spend the night at the hotel even though I had already pre-paid for the room. In Chicago, I discovered that the room I had booked was a shared room instead of the separate room that I had originally planned.

Of course, I had to use my gray matter to the fullest during my time away from Amherst. Faced with the excuse that “this is a 100-year-old hotel and we cannot process digital forms of transaction,” I responded that a good hotel in our time is a commodity that provides both paid lodging and a positive experience to the guests, and that I couldn’t understand how a hotel that only accepted conventional payment methods could survive in the 21st century.

I told him that I was an international student visiting Minnesota for the first time. My bank cards were running into problems, and my mother was in Vietnam. Back then, I didn’t know if my argument really held any grounds (LJST majors — if you happen to be reading this part — please turn a blind eye). However, at that moment, I truly had a strong belief in what I was saying. I believed that I did nothing wrong to convince them to use another form of deposit so I could lay my back down in a cozy room, after an early morning trip from Amherst to South Station to the airport, two hours of airport delays, an interstate flight, and a Metroline bus downtown. As a result, the hotel agent spoke to the manager, and I was upgraded to the Queen's room as compensation for the mental damage I had suffered.

The Landmark Center in Saint Paul, Minnestoa. Photo courtesy of Pho Vu '23.

That night, I was hungry, and although all the stores were almost closed, my Google Maps detected an Asian noodle shop near my hotel closing at 11 p.m. When I left at 10:15 p.m., walking away from the block of my hotel, lights were still on, but danger started to become more salient. While snapping pictures of the scenes around me, I noticed some men smoking and heading towards me. I took a breath and hurried to the noodle shop at breakneck speed, pretending to be on the phone with my aunt. Yes, I still wanted the noodles. Next mission: getting back to the hotel. Worrying that criminals would be most likely to attack someone who appears kind, I called my dad on speakerphone as I walked.

I was terrified that night, especially after a staff member advised me “be careful, but nothing serious should happen to you” when I asked about going to the nearest station to top up my Metroline card. I decided to put the brakes on my solo exploration and look for an alternative way to spend my time after 6 p.m.: hitting the hotel’s 12th floor fitness center.

Three days later, I was preparing for my trip to Chicago. I stayed at the FreeHand Chicago, and I totally recommend it. From my hotel, it was only a one-minute walk to the Pizzeria Uno — birthplace of deep dish pizza, where I quickly learned that, if you go alone, you can get in faster than a group. In Chicago, I decided to walk between locations as much as possible, both to save money and to familiarize myself with the place. Roaming Chicago streets is like a chess game, and each skyscraper has its own architectural characteristics that make figuring out your location in the city by looking at the skyline a memory game in and of itself.

Although there were moments of fright and terrors that surfaced as I wandered through Chicago, and unexpected obstacles during my time in St. Paul, I returned from the trip having taken a few more steps forward on the path to becoming a real adult. Progress was made as I went down the list of possible necessities like toothbrush and toothpaste, and when I made the hard choice to pick out only a few costumes to fit in my carry-on luggage. This would make it hard for me to forget anything important while I was traveling. Progress happened when I realized that there was no Valentine Dining Hall where I could get food without limit, and that a breakfast including eggs benedict, creme brulee, soy milk, and service fees cost me 50 dollars. Progress happened when I bought three bowls of Nongshim noodles and two bottles of Smartwater for a total of 10 dollars, dodging the problem that even just two Smartwater water bottles at the hotel cost 12 dollars. Progress happened when the hotel did not have an electric kettle, and I learned to cook noodles with a Kellogg coffeemaker.

Progress happened when I decided to pay an extra $300 to upgrade to a single hotel room in Chicago, concerned that sharing rooms with a stranger in a bustling city might put not only my valuables but my life at potential peril.

Progress happened when I learned that you can create your own must-go destinations list without mindlessly checking off an online list of recommendations. Landmarks are only for tourists, but talking to locals will help you find the real hidden gems. Instead of going to the Contemporary Art Museum, I chose the Museum of Ice Cream. By the end of that visit, I could pride myself on being a short-term ice cream roll maker for a street vendor with Ice Cream Lab, and learning to say “No” to getting more ice cream (even though an entrance ticket guarantees unlimited access to all desserts).

Progress happened when I brought a charger to recharge my gadgets on the go, and progress happened when I combined Google Maps and marked-by-memory landmarks to navigate roads to get back to the hotel safely.

All in all, I was able to reassure my family when I was traveling alone. I really took heed of everyone’s advice and prioritized my safety when traveling to cities where guns were free to use. Actually, before arranging my week-long trip, I asked a Chinese friend of mine to travel with me. Her face turned panicky: “Why would you go to Chicago? It’s not safe there for us Asians, and you’re a girl too.” She told me to be careful and wished me good luck, and I think her blessing worked.

I have learned how to enjoy time being alone, and those short six days made me believe that I could live alone happily after graduating.

Spending time in two places colder than Amherst is definitely one of my more unorthodox decisions, but those two places nonetheless brought me joy in the most special way. I had already had the experience of living away from home in South Korea, but I felt safe there because I was in a country sharing much of the culture I was born and raised in. I’m glad I bit the bullet this Thanksgiving and went to places I was far more unfamiliar with. A total of six days spent in Chicago and Saint Paul is probably not enough for me to fully understand those cities, but I can definitely be relied on for useful advice if you’re ever planning to visit these two cities for a short time.

If you have thoughts on this or any of our articles, comment below or send us a letter by using this form or emailing [email protected].